By Rahul Desai
In my third year of college, the teachers marvelled at me. They cited me as an example to other students. Don’t make excuses. Be like Rahul. The more they embarrassed me like that, the more “rebellious” I tried to look. At one point, a Nike headband, two sweatbands, spiky streaked hair and a yellow Livestrong band became my reactionary choice of attire. I refused to look like an apple-polishing nerd. But the teachers’ adulation had nothing to do with my grades.
My attendance was a whopping 94 percent. Anyone remotely connected to the hipster South Mumbai college ecosystem knows that a number like that is scarcely believable. If it’s Xavier’s, it’s also impossibly uncool and humanly impossible – unless you lived on campus in the boys’ hostel. Attendance was the most pressing problem of every Xavierite’s life. 75 percent, the magic number required to sit for the university exams, was a source of daring proxy strategies and lasting friendships. And yet there I was, signing my name in person for 94 percent of the lectures – and by extension the first suspect in line during a proxy misfire. An anomaly, a symbol of sincerity. Be like Rahul. He lives more than an hour away and he still reaches for the 8 AM lectures. Even the professors couldn’t slack because of me.
My obscene punctuality had nothing to do with classes. Most of the time, I didn’t even know how regular I was. I was rarely aware that, day after day, I was willingly getting out of bed and floating to a room at the other end of town across three modes of transport. I was floating, not trudging. Because it wasn’t college that was my destination. College was simply a place – a medium – that allowed me to construct my destiny. It could have been a post office or airport for all I cared. Lectures were just an excuse to look out the door. Friends were just an excuse to roam the corridors. The canteen was just an excuse to scan the crowd.
You see, there was a girl. She had the most striking eyes. She liked the colour black. She liked travelling. She smiled a lot. I was infatuated. Life felt perfect and full of possibility.
But I didn’t know her name. We had never met. We had never spoken. But she was there. She studied in my college, though on most days it felt like I studied in hers. Every morning, as I entered the gates of an educational institution, I’d wonder what part of it might offer me a glimpse of her. If that didn’t happen, I’d come back next morning, earlier and with a renewed sense of hope. Be like Rahul. He lives more than an hour away and he still reaches for the 8 AM lectures. I was excited, nervous, wobbly in the knees.
It never helped that I was too young to interpret Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love as a tragedy. Sometimes I’d pass her on a staircase and that moment alone would keep me going for weeks. Sometimes I’d see her leave college, and I was so conscious of not coming across as a stalker that I walked in the opposite direction with a huge grin on my heart. It was silly and it was great. I looped Bulla Ki Jaana Main Kaun on my Sony discman till the CD was scratched beyond repair. This was by no means a romantic song, but I found a companion in the longing of Rabbi Shergill’s voice. I lived the same day over and over and over again. 94 times out of 100.
I was also convinced that she was in on this wordless little love story. I didn’t think it was entirely unrequited. I don’t remember when I first noticed her, but I was sure it had something to do with her watching me. It was the classic rom-com scene: You’re in a group, you feel alone, you’re a misfit, suddenly you feel seen, you feel eyes on you, when you look up she’s pretending to look elsewhere, and now you think you have a connection. One misfit becomes two. That’s all it took. She knew I existed. I was confident that, for the remainder of college life, we would play hide-and-seek in the corridors of stolen glances. An unspoken connection is a thrilling thing: the promise of uncertainty combines with the uncertainty of promise, and the consequence is a motivational cousin of love. You experience the idea without experiencing the person. It’s just as potent, like watching a movie of your own life unfurling in real-time.
One day, she was waiting behind me at the Rolls counter in the foyer. I sensed it. It was now or never. I made the first move. I cracked a lame joke. I finally heard her voice. It was not like anything I had expected. It was better. I somehow didn’t melt into the floor. The benches were packed. I bunked my next lecture – 1 of probably 10 all year – and we hung out. I leant against a pillar to look casual. Her friends had left by then. I walked (with) her to the station, which was different from mine, because she took the Harbour Line and I was on the Western Line. I boarded the train anyway. It never stopped. We texted each other that night. Her number was, save for two digits, similar to mine. It was meant to be. Her phone was orange. Mine was blue. We liked talking. We liked the city.
And then I woke up. Again. And again. Crushed, broken, disappointed. But it had felt so real. Like living through time slowly, evolving and changing before being shunted back in time with all that accumulated wisdom and feelings. I wanted that feeling. An unspoken connection is a thrilling thing, but it’s also just as disorienting. You imagine the person without imagining the idea. Your head plays games. The future feels within reach. I started having these vivid dreams, night after night, before morning after morning of waking up and facing the harsh fact that we were yet to meet. That I was letting time pass without making it mine. In college, it felt like her memory had been wiped out but mine was still progressing. The dissonance felt depressing.
My impatience rose with the sun every morning. In every dream, our relationship went deeper and further. We became more comfortable. In every waking moment, my desire to live that dream became more desperate. At college, or on the way to college, my head began to simulate the various ways we would meet – down to every last detail, the smells, the time on the clock, the flutter in the chest. Every simulation took so much out of me that, for a split second, I’d mistake the glorious fiction to be my reality. For a split second, I’d look outside the window like a boy in love, looking forward to our walk to the station that evening.
After jogging every single permutation and combination of words and gestures through my mind, I decided that it was time. It was the last two months of the last year of college. I had waited – and dreamt and lived and re-lived – for a year. Soon, there would be no classes, no impressed teachers, no attendance sheets, no excuses. Two months became one month. It was now or never. By now, half the college was aware of my growing frustration. At times I’d try to trick serendipity and avoid running into her so that I didn’t feel like a failure for lacking the courage to say “hi”. It was exhausting.
And it came down to the very last day, the day of the farewell party. I re-entered college after having a haircut in the middle of the day – a haircut conveyed intent. Maybe I was a new person. I cursed my luck when I saw her alone by the basketball court. Why was she alone? She was never alone.
I stopped by her side, expecting a knowing smile. Or something like that.
“I just wanted to say I’ve been wanting to say this for a long time and I’ve seen you and I just wanted to know if you’d like to maybe go for a coffee sometime and maybe I can give you my number.”
I couldn’t breathe. Those eyes.
“I…can take it from a friend.”
Yes. Her friend was my friend.
“Are you sure? I can maybe give it to you right now or maybe we can do coffee now.”
‘Maybe’ was my favourite sound of nothingness.
“I’m sure. Thanks. Maybe later. I’ll let you know.”
“Let me know. Also my name is Rahul. Bye.”
She told me her name. I walked away, quick and triumphant.
That was it. 400 days of crippling imagination had ended. I felt free. It took only half a minute. I had lived with the burden of hope for so long that rejection felt like a sweet release. It was over. I felt normal again. Her name sounded nice. I think I knew her name all along.
I didn’t reach home that night, I returned home. It looked familiarly unfamiliar. My father was in the bedroom. My mother was in the living room. She was hiding her tears, again. He was hiding his rage, again. Or perhaps it was the other way around. Either way, the silence felt deafening. 94 times out of 100, I had escaped this silence. I had built castles in my air to feel rich and busy – and far away from home. I had even loved and lost without ever having loved at all.
Waiting till the very last day also meant surviving – and relishing – the days and months that preceded it. Waiting, and the subsequent rejection, had meant that the story ran just about long enough to keep me riveted. The screen had shown me a world big enough to keep me distracted. The end credits theme was now fading in.
My phone vibrated. A new text message. Maybe it’s her. Maybe it doesn’t need to be. “Hi.”
It was my ex-girlfriend, the one who had cheated on me with my best friend. This was her first text in over a year. “Hi” is just one word but hers had a tone of history. It felt like a pair of eyes finding you in a crowded room. She lived in another city. A city that, 100 times out of 100, could help me escape this silence. Don’t make excuses. Be like Rahul. He moved cities to work in our company.
I started typing a message…